Effort to make rail tank cars used to ship crude oil safer marked by squabbling

The Associated Press

FILE - This Dec. 30, 2013 file photo shows a fireball going up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. An effort by government and industry to make the tank cars used to ship crude oil and ethanol safer, spurred by a series of fiery train crashes, is becoming mired in squabbling and finger-pointing. The Department of Transportation, concerned about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains that are sometimes as many as 100 cars long, is drafting new tank car regulations aimed at making the cars less likely to spill their contents in the event of a crash. But final regulations aren’t expected until the end of the year at the earliest, and it is common for such government rulemakings to drag on for years. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy, File)

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The oil industry is using every tank car available to keep up with the exponential growth in Bakken oil production since hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," made it possible to extract more oil from the ground. Freight railroads transported 434,032 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008. Three years ago, the U.S. became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since 1949. Ethanol production has also escalated dramatically, creating competition for available rail cars. About 69,000 carloads of ethanol were shipped on rails in 2005. Last year, it was about 325,000 carloads.

In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Rail and safety officials said they were surprised by the ferocity of the fire. They were used to dealing with sludge-like crude that doesn't ignite easily, but Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was more comparable to gasoline.

There have been eight significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to a presentation by crash investigators at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board forum this week on the transport of crude oil and ethanol. Most of the accidents occurred in lightly populated areas, although one derailment and fire in December occurred less than two miles from the town of Casselton, N.D.

Railroads can't be sure what they're hauling, said Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the rail association. Given that uncertainty, he said, they want oil shipped in tank cars with thicker shells like those required for chemicals that form toxic vapor clouds when released.

Regulators who have tested some Bakken oil samples on their own warned emergency responders and the public in January that it could be more dangerous than many conventional types of crude. But petroleum institute officials say they don't believe Bakken crude is significantly different than other light crudes, such as those from Texas.

Transportation officials are now "assessing whether or not we will need to take additional steps to gather the information we requested" from oil companies, according to a government statement provided to The Associated Press.

Thousands of older tank cars that predate the voluntary standards adopted three years ago may also have to be discontinued for oil transport, Fronczak said. Canadian authorities announced Wednesday that they will require a three-year phase out or retrofit of older cars like the ones that ruptured in Lac-Megantic. But oil industry consultant Lee Johnson, testifying for the petroleum institute, told the safety board that U.S. oil companies need the "flexibility" to continue to use the older cars, and any decision on retrofits should be "data-driven."

Of course, if the railroad industry were to do a better job of fixing broken and substandard track, a major cause of accidents, or installing positive train control, a technology designed to reduce human error and prevent the most catastrophic kinds of collisions, there might be fewer crashes, Christopher Barkan, executive director of the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois, told the board.

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